I’m digging way back into the archives for this Throwback Thursday. Even though I didn’t even spend 72 hours there, Prague (or Praha), the capital of the Czech Republic, is one of my favorite cities, regardless of country or continent. I went there during a short weekend trip while I was studying abroad in Cologne, and ever since, I’ve been itching to go back. Going through my old pictures to write this post gave me a real case of bittersweet nostalgia.
Unlike so many other European cities, Prague managed to escape WWII mostly unscathed. Because of that, its soaring cathedrals, cobblestone bridges, and breathtaking castles are truly remnants of a previous age. Prague’s charm is a heady mix of old-world tradition and vibrant modernism, and it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
In terms of a more modern draw, one of the highlights of Prague for me was definitely the John Lennon Wall. Funnily enough, I would have missed this landmark entirely if it hadn’t been for the fact that one of my companions harbored a major Beatles obsession. Thank heavens for that. In a city full of Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic architecture, the John Lennon Wall, with its eye-catching graffiti, sticks out like a sore thumb.
Since the 1980s, it’s been covered with tributes to Lennon and the Beatles, and it was originally meant to be a place where young Czechs could voice their irritation with the communist regime that was in place then. In the present days, it’s more of an outlet for idealistic views of love and piece, rather than a place to air your political grievances.
One of the reasons I want so badly to return to Prague is to delve into the culinary parts of the city. Unfortunately, when I went I was still very much in “poor college kid mode,” which translated to me balking at the idea of paying more than ten euros for dinner. I distinctly remember getting a hefty set menu for dinner, and while my potato dumplings, goulash, and pork cutlet were delicious, dessert had disappointed me. Apple strüdel. Don’t get me wrong, I love apple strudel…but it’s basically the national dessert of Germany. (Okay, technically it’s originally Austrian, but you can’t throw a stone in Germany without hitting a restaurant that serves it.) I remember thinking to myself, “I took a twelve-hour night train to Prague and for that, I’m eating apple strudel?!” Traveller faux pas.
Because we went to Prague in early November, we hit the sweet spot of late autumn: the weather was still gorgeous and Christmas markets were beginning to pop up around the city. Christmas markets are one of my favorite parts of European culture, and those in Prague were no different.
A lot of that appeal comes from Old Town, the section of the city that’s…well, the oldest. Located on the right bank of the Vltava River, Old Town is home to some of the most famous and iconic landmarks in Prague. One of those is the Astronomical Clock, which occupies one of the side towers of Old Town Hall in Old Town Square. (Prague may be many things, but creativity in naming places is not one of its strong points.)
Calling this temporal monster a “clock” does it a great disservice, because it is definitely not your standard “chime at the hour” timepiece. Rather, the Astronomical Clock is really an astrolabe. Sure, it’ll tell you the time, but you can also find the time of the sunrise and sunset, the phase of the moon, the placement of the Sun and Moon according to the Zodiac, the length of the astronomical night, time in old Bohemian hours, and a whole host of other random data, not to mention that it’s simply a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Considering that it was built in 1410, this thing’s pretty high-tech. Crowds gather there just before the top of every hour to watch the upper region of the clock do its thing: Death appears to wave about an hourglass, the apostles trudge past small windows, and a rooster crows.
Close to Old Town Square lies the Charles Bridge, one of the most iconic sights in Prague. It’s also one of the places most prone to pick-pocketing, mostly because the tourists are too busy gaping at the gorgeous view to keep an eye on their wallet or camera. The Charles Bridge is full of buskers and artists selling their wares. As in any city, the quality varies, but Prague is unique in that buskers and vendors need a permit.
Prague Castle looms over the Charles Bridge, and as is the case in most of Europe, if you want to enjoy the view, you’re going to be climbing a fair amount of stairs. The panoramic view of the city, though, is well worth the calf cramps. It’s even more beautiful in autumn, when the ivy is beginning to turn scarlet and blotches of fulvous and titian leaves pop up throughout the city.
The castle itself is obviously impressive, but equally beautiful is St. Vitus Cathedral, which occupies the same general area. Now, I’m lucky enough that I’ve seen a lot of Gothic cathedrals in my day. It takes a lot to impress me. St. Vitus took my breath away. I clearly remember a moment while we were standing outside the cathedral, marveling at the intricate gargoyles adorning the turrets, and turning to one of my companions to remark something along the lines of, “My god, I honestly cannot believe I am here looking at this.”
It was a surreal moment, and one of the many I’ve experienced that made me realize how lucky I am to have seen so many different locales around the world. The fact that Prague was one of those just makes me all the luckier.